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Reel Women: Lena Dunham, Beauty Standards, and When Critics Go Too Far

Girls Season 2 Photos
HBO

This week journalist Linda Stasi of The New York Post wrote a review (?) of the second season of Lena Dunham‘s ‘Girls,’ but wound up passive-aggressively — and sometimes aggressively — critiquing Dunham’s body instead. Why are we still talking about this?

In her “review” of the second season of ‘Girls,’ Stasi refers to writer, director and star Lena Dunham as a “pathological exhibitionist,” before going on to describe her body as “blobby” several times. First of all, I should note that only the first four episodes of the second season have been sent out to critics, myself included, and in no way should Stasi’s piece be considered a review of the upcoming season. From her write-up:

It’s not every day in the TV world of anorexic actresses with fake boobs that a woman with giant thighs, a sloppy backside and small breasts is compelled to show it all.

Okay, this sentence isn’t too egregious — Stasi is noting general societal discomfort with the way women are portrayed on screen. We need more variety because all of us — men included — come in different shapes and sizes. It becomes increasingly difficult to relate to stories on screen that are meant to be relatable when those people look nothing like you or I. Celebrities have one job: to entertain; but over time, with the advent of magazines and gossip sites, they have also become aspirational figures. Women flock to plastic surgeons asking for Megan Fox‘s lips and Beyonce‘s rear end.

But then the sentence takes a left turn and becomes passive-aggressive when Stasi uses the term “sloppy” to describe Dunham’s backside. Maybe Stasi is one of those self-deprecating women who calls out her own flaws, and thus believes she has the authority to call out the flaws of other women, thinking she’s being an honest friend. Sadly, Linda Stasi is a part of the ongoing problem with beauty and the media, and her other comments further illustrate this:

This season, Hannah has grown a pair, sort of, and is no longer the sex slave of the slob slacker. In fact, Adam as well as another man are now obsessed with her and can’t get enough of her blobby body.

Stasi’s comments are of an astonished tone, as if she can’t believe that Hannah could draw the affection of one man — let alone two. Even more:

Interestingly, the gorgeous Marnie is the one who is now totally unlucky in love. Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to be smart, breathtakingly beautiful, nice and kind. Not when there are blobbies who are willing to take their clothes off in public constantly — even when they aren’t in character.

So Alison Williams’ Marnie is gorgeous, smart and nice, but since the less attractive — or, if Stasi’s tone is to be interpreted correctly, the not-at-all attractive — Hannah is willing to take her clothes off so easily, she ends up with more partners. Never mind that Hannah’s character is also often kind and is incredibly smart, and never mind that both women are equally flawed in their individual ways — Hannah, a writer, is self-involved and deprecating, unable to fully commit to a relationship because she hasn’t fully embraced herself; Marnie is sometimes superficial, also self-involved, and can be incredibly selfish and short-sighted; both women are limited by their 20-something world view, living in a microcosm of their own creation, as people in their 20s are wont to do.

And it’s those flaws that make them relatable. Sure, it’s nice to see Lena Dunham show off her body, which is not toned to conventional standards of Hollywood and tabloid beauty. But I don’t sit at home high-fiving myself every time I catch a glimpse of her thighs and think this is some sort of victory for me and my “blobby” sisters. Instead I appreciate Dunham’s honesty in all areas of the show, from her emotional to her literal nakedness, and it’s the former that’s more inspiring and reassuring than the latter.

I hate that I have to write about this so early in 2013, when I feel like I spent enough time calling out this media-manufactured beauty standard last year. I hate that I have to call out a fellow female journalist, who should know better. Her comments are not meant as compliments or praise. Her last comment, in particular, indicates that she doesn’t believe that Hannah — or maybe even Dunham, for that matter, and that’s scary to ponder — is deserving of love or appreciation because Marnie is prettier, and the prettier, more classically “beautiful” woman should win out.

I shouldn’t have to tell Linda Stasi that her comments are harmful — not just because these are personal, offensive comments made about Dunham’s body, but because the more we dissect, critique, and judge the bodies and lives of other women, the more we normalize this behavior. And this is what most media outlets, who depend on women for their livelihood, want. They want us to judge other women because if we’re doing that, we’re judging ourselves in comparison, and we will constantly feel the need to be slimmer, prettier and better, which means we will buy more magazines, visit more websites and buy more of their sponsors’ products to make that happen, ensuring they continue to thrive. It’s a recycling factory, and they use our insecurity as fuel.

Stasi appears to not only be a victim of the media machine that dictates how women should look and feel, but she is now also a perpetrator working to keep that machine going. Is she a victim of Stockholm syndrome, held captive by the beauty ideals we’ve been forced to digest on screens and in print for decades, and now identifying with her captors? There’s an idea that if something is repeated for long enough, you’ll begin to believe it. Maybe Linda Stasi doesn’t hate Hannah and Lena Dunham (and all other normal, “blobby” women); maybe Linda Stasi hates herself.

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